by Rob Horning

29 December 2006


I’ve been reading Giles Slade’s Made to Break, which explores the evolution of the concept of planned obsolesence in American industry. Slade goes into way too much detail for my taste about the nascent radio and nylon industries, but his overall account of the unstoppable rise of disposability is interesting. The story goes like this: the expansion of industry in the nineteenth century brought with it the specter of overproduction, which seemed to many to be responsible for the Depression. (Obviously these folks took no comfort in Say’s law.) In order to get consumers to repeatedly purchase the same item, and thus keep workers employed in making these items, they needed to be convinced that what they already owned had become obsolete by offering a “new and improved” version. Of course, touted technological improvements were often specious, and most improvements are entirely stylistic—as a quintessential example, Slade traces how GM pioneered styling in autos to steal market share from Ford, which stubbornly built durable cars. Slade cites Christine Fredrick, one of the pioneers of gender-targeted advertisement, as devising a list of three “telltale habits of mind” that we should be induced to cultivate, which he paraphrases as this:

(1) A state of mind which is highly suggestible and open; eager and willing to take hold of anything new either in the shape of a new invention or new designs or styles or ways of living.
(2) A readiness to ‘scrap’ or lay aside an article before its natural life of usefulness is completed, in order to make way for the newer and better thing.
(3) A willingness to apply a very large share of one’s income, even if it pinches savings, to the acquisition of the new goods or services or way of living.

I don’t think it’s too cynical to say that this defines the meaning of life for those in a consumer society—do whatever you can to remake yourself in a new and improved way with the aid of products that one can readily fantasize about and through. The degree to which you are “countercultural” is the degree to which you consciously resist these tenets. (And the degree to which we think we disobey these tenets but reveal nonetheless how deeply we have internalized them makes us faux countercultural—makes us hipsters.)

Industrial design as an industry in its own right begins here, and the advertising industry, generally, takes off with this new mission in mind, to persuade the general public that fashion cycles must be obeyed in regard to all their material possessions, and the up-to-dateness of the stuff you have is the surest way of identifying status, rather bloodline or comportment—this message has a democratic appeal to it, in that it seems to do away with inherited privilege in favor of what money can buy, but the relentless, ceaseless striving to be current if not novel is merely a different kind of tyranny, and one that is tremendously harmful to the environment—Slade is especially good at illustrating the enormous amount of waste a consumer society generates by relying on unecessary packaging (individually wrapped just for you!) and unnecessary replacement buying to connote one’s personal progress. Inevitably we come to expect to throw away everything we acquire eventually; we don’t saddle ourselves with the looming burden of ownership—imagine if you were continually confronted with the possibilty of having to keep everything you got forever; think then what a borderline insult it would be to have gifty gifts foisted on you for no other reason that to make the giver feel thoughtful.

This burden of ownership, and our deeply ingrained committment to disposability, may be why it feels so good to purge ourselves of unnecessary things. It’s always a rewarding feeling when I drop off Trader Joe’s bags full of junk at the Goodwill. (Though I usually end up buying more junk on the same visit.) At times I feel as though nothing is as satisying as the experience of using things up, of finally extracting the potential of some object I’ve acquired and then getting rid of it. Consumer society orients us to think in these terms, of not merely using things but of using them up, of extinguishing them, of sucking them dry. The idea that something could be useful without being used up begins to seem like a dream, a scam, a lie akin to a perpetual motion machine. When I’m conscious of this, I try to resist; I begin to romanticize getting pleasure from the same thing, listening to John, Wolf King of L.A. over and over again, or glorying in playing Freecell repeatedly. I think about rereading books I love, sometimes I’ll even thumb through them, suffused with warm wistfulness—ah, that first time I read For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign….  So we glorify inexhaustible resources, but we don’t trust them; they are fairy tales, mirages of nostalgia. Eventually we begin to think of other people as resources to be used up, that this is the honest and fair way of appraising them, and we attempt to extract whatever use we can out of them and then discard them, whether they are in the labor force or are our intimates—though the “purity” of the latter may sometimes be contructed as an escape from the former, the way we feel obliged to use people in production, to manage them as disposable things. In essence we start to plan for obsolescence with regard to the people in our lives, though we regard this as something inevitable that we must “be realistic” about. (We need to expect the cheese to be moved, that sort of thing.) This leads perhaps to our wanting to compensate by prioritizing trying to be indisposable, feeling irreplaceable for some unique quality we have to offer the people who are closest to us. We love those who make us feel this way, regardless of whether the way we have become indispensible is also a way we can be any good to this world.

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